Gurin's Wide World of Reality…and Beyond
Independent producer turns simple ideas and international formats into a string of successful shows
By Jim Benson -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/8/2007 8:00:00 PM
Phil Gurin is already a prolific importer and exporter of unscripted programming formats. Now he is hoping to go where no reality-TV producer has gone before: into space. Gurin, who chronicled pop star Lance Bass' failed 2002 bid to become an astro-tourist, has been working with a group of international producers to create the first reality show about space travel.
Whether or not the space show ever gets off the ground, Gurin, 47, is already flying high. Perhaps best known for importing British game show The Weakest Link, he has built a thriving independent entertainment company by turning simple ideas into a string of successful game, reality, variety, event and stunt shows. And with ABC, CBS and NBC all ordering his game shows, The Gurin Co. has been holding its own against reality giants Fremantle and Endemol.
From spec scripts to game-show hits
Gurin grew up in New York watching Batman and Lost in Space and acting in high school productions. After graduating from Syracuse University, he earned an MFA in dramatic writing from New York University. As he embarked on a writing career, the undergrad year he spent studying in England proved useful when he wrote the 1982 TV movie The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana.
He spent the next several years unsuccessfully peddling scripts while toiling as a story analyst for such outfits as Orion Pictures and United Artists and as a film evaluator for Festival, HBO's short-lived movies, specials and documentary channel. He also authored The James Bond Trivia Quiz Book and a novel, Adventures With Dangerous Women.
In 1988, Gurin moved to Los Angeles to write spec scripts. But, within a month, he met Marc Summers, host of kids game show Double Dare. Summers offered him jobs on spinoff versions of the show.
Over the next decade, Gurin wrote, directed and produced projects for more than 70 companies, including the Orion theatrical thriller Overkill, ABC's Before They Were Stars, Nickelodeon's Wild and Crazy Kids, MTV's Remote Control and the syndicated animated version of American Gladiators.
In 1997, after producing four seasons of CBS' Candid Camera and other projects, Gurin struck out on his own and started The Gurin Co. Along with live event specials, such as Donald Trump's beauty pageants for NBC and Fox's New Year's Eve Live specials, he has fielded a diverse array of reality and game shows, such as remakes of classic Queen for a Day for Lifetime and Twenty-One for NBC.
Gurin scored a hit with British game show The Weakest Link. With its rapid-fire Q&A/team elimination format and icy, insult-prone British host, Link aired on NBC in 2001-02 and the following season in syndication.
With Lingo, an updated take on a skill-based word game crossed with a form of Bingo, Gurin drove home the value of trading in international formats. He and his Dutch partners on the show had persuaded a reluctant GSN to air 20 free episodes of the Netherlands version of the game show as an enticement for a full order of a U.S.-produced series.
The strategy worked. After its August 2002 debut, the show scored huge ratings with no promotion. Last April, Lingo began its sixth season as GSN's top-rated game show, giving Gurin more than 300 episodes to sell internationally.
Gurin recently brought in former BSkyB and Sam Brick Entertainment executive Hazel Steward as VP of development to help him shepherd international projects to and from Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, The Netherlands, Thailand and the UK.
Network triple play
Gurin has a full plate stateside, as well. ABC signed up for his variety/gambling hybrid Wanna Bet? Because the original German variety show featured the sort of guest whose talent is to blow bubbles through his nose, Gurin added the gambling component to make it more appealing to American game-show audiences.
Meanwhile, Ghen Maynard, the alternative-programming and digital guru for CBS, The CW and CBS Paramount Network Television, went to Gurin with the concept for Do You Trust Me?
“He is someone who can execute fresh ideas,” says Maynard, who is keeping a tight lid on details of the Tucker Carlson-hosted program, other than to say that it features two strangers who work either with or against each other for big prize money.
In partnering with Gurin at this early stage, CBS is looking to avoid a repeat of NBC's experience with Gurin's Singing Bee, in which contestants must recite the lyrics to well-known songs. NBC initially passed on the pitch from Gurin and fellow Executive Producer Bob Horowitz but reconsidered after the company sold Bee to Britain's ITV network without a pilot or any tape being shot—virtually unheard of in the reality world.
The network then found itself scrambling to dramatically move up the show's premiere—from this fall to this week, on July 10—after Fox announced plans to debut Don't Forget the Lyrics!, from RDF USA, on July 11.
Gurin is keenly aware of how much is riding on his network triple play: “I don't want to screw it up.”
The final frontier
Gurin is also plotting to become more engaged in broadband, mobile and merchandising, either on his own or through partnerships. To help map out a course, he recently hired some key executives. “At some point, I want to step up our game,” he says. “But we need to have the resources first.”
And as Gurin prepares to explore the final frontier of reality TV, he can draw on vast reserves of determination.
“I'm a lucky SOB,” he says. “Seriously, I have absolutely no sense of entitlement about any of this. I just don't quit. I work hard, and if people buy from me now, they buy again, because they know that I am virtually willing to kill myself to earn the trust of the buyer.”
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